Michel Aoun, a Christian Lebanese politician who once personified opposition to Syria, completed an astounding about-face on Wednesday by meeting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, in Damascus.
Although a slew of Lebanese political leaders have been travelling the road to Damascus since the neighbours agreed in August to establish diplomatic relations, Mr Aoun’s trip is different because he holds no official position.
Analysts see this is a sign of Syria’s continuing influence in Lebanese politics, as candidates, including Mr Aoun, seek Mr Assad’s support ahead of parliamentary elections due to be held before June.
“I don’t think this is a vote-winner at a popular level – in fact, it’s a bit of a risk, as the general Christian attitude towards Syria is not favourable,” said Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“But Syria is still very influential in Lebanon and if he can use that influence, it could help him.”
Among Syria’s opponents in Beirut, the visit by Mr Aoun possibly the country’s most popular Christian leader, underlines the extent to which Damascus continues to have a hand in Lebanese politics and raises fears over the return of Syrian hegemony.
Mr Aoun, a former army chief and one-time presidential hopeful, was prime minister of an interim government until he was forced into exile in 1990 after being defeated in a Syrian offensive at the end of Lebanon’s civil war. He spent the next 15 years in Paris campaigning against Damascus. But he returned to Lebanon in 2005, shortly after Syria withdrew its troops following the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former prime minister, in which Damascus was implicated, although it denies any involvement.
His alliance with other anti-Syrian figures, however, soon turned to hostility and he later aligned himself instead with the pro-Syrian opposition led by Hizbollah, the Shia movement backed by both Damascus and Tehran.
Given Mr Aoun’s popularity among Christians in Lebanon, the alliance has been a boon to Hizbollah, allowing the party to highlight an anti-sectarian position.
Although Hizbollah did not succeed in winning for Mr Aoun the prize he coveted – the presidency – the alliance has been maintained. In October, Mr Aoun went to Tehran for the first time and held talks with Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president.
“We want to build the future, not dwell on the past,” Mr Aoun, 73, said after “frank and clear” talks with Mr Assad on Wednesday, according to the official Sana news agency.
Fears that Damascus was re-asserting itself mounted in September, when 10,000 Syrian troops massed on the border, ostensibly to stop smuggling. The troop build- up was expanded in October, according to local reports.